Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Worldlearning & Worldbuilding: Scope (and Microscope)

I’ve always been a fan of history.

Even before I read my first novel, as a young child, I was studying world history out of a sample “A” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia my family owned.

The more I learned about history, the more I realized how awesomely big it was.

Even if I learned the places and dates of World War II battles, there were always smaller stories that went on in the midst of those battles. Dogfights, individual cruisers (and their crews), small units of a dozen men cut off behind the lines.

And even if I were able to learn “all about” the 20th Century, there was still the 19th Century, and the 3rdCentury before Christ.

During any year or event of history, there are millions of stories – the “stories of history.”

It quickly became obvious that I would never know all of history – it was too big. And that fascinated me.

You could “see” the rudiments of history with the naked eye, but if you grabbed a magnifying glass and looked closer, there was always more history. Like a fractal.

The Magnifying Glass on Fiction



A fiction story generally exists within the magnifying glass. You don’t read stories about galactic battles or tribal migrations without being zoomed in. It wouldn’t be interesting. I think this is the prime reason why students consider history boring – they don’t have a connection with the “story” of history through real stories.

And that’s why fiction novels have to be real stories, not collections of facts.

Herman Wouk’s epic Winds of War wasn’t about “World War II” so much as it was about the lives of individuals whose own stories told the bigger story.

The other thing that fascinates me, now, as an author, is how fiction stories are often more interesting if they’re set in a fictional world that mimics the size and awesomeness of history. J.R.R. Tolkien developed maps, histories, poetry, even fake languages for The Lord of the Rings.

Some stories can exist within a very small “world.” The story doesn’t require a larger context, and might even be distracting if they had one.

A story about a New York businesswoman and her travails at work may not need to connect to a world anywhere outside of her high-rise. Maybe just someone on the phone in London. But that colleague in London might as well be in Helsinki or Kalamazoo, unless the story requires dialogue about fish & chips or some pseudo-historical event to be going on in the background.

Your mystery readers may or may not need to know that your murder victim marched at Selma. But if your villain was also involved in the JFK assassination you’ll have to provide historical context, perhaps including matters related to the Cold War, race relations or rock & roll. Otherwise your story will lack immersion.

Literary genres require “worlds” less than science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction. And historical fiction, unless it’s “alternative,” already has its world written. Fantasy and sci-fi need their worlds to be imagined anew – a process called worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding



If your hero is a “Wozan Warrior,” you need to know what that means. Who are the Wozan, and why are they at war, and with whom?
A planning map of Orinthia showing tribal migrations.

If, instead, your hero is abducted from his living room by spies of the Zilgan Space Empire, you’ll need to understand a lot about their history in order to write a believable, immersive story.

Authors often need a world – real or imagined – to work from. Such a context, even if it’s not directly relevant to the story, allows you to create richer, deeper, more empathetic characters and plotlines.

The process of worldbuilding deserves a whole article of its own, and when I do that I’ll link it here.

But in general your world needs to be scalable. Your world needs to be big enough that when your readers wonder about the big picture, or when you’re trying to provide significant details, there’s something to see with either the naked eye or the magnifying glass.

Connections: Hows & Whys



Fictional worlds are built the same way real history is – piece by piece, detail by detail, almost person by person. The kinds of things you need might include:
  1. Historical events, perhaps reaching back a long way (how did the tribes or countries develop?)
  2. Important leaders – who “matters” in this society?
  3. Cultural, philosophical, religious or occupation groups
  4. For the most major of those groups, what do they believe and how does it impact the world?
  5. Societal tensions – who hates who, who protects who, and why?
  6. Geography – Knowing the lay of the land helps, literally and figuratively, but additionally what land/water features make places special?
  7. Major features of the main city (or planet, or planetary city), if there is one – major buildings, thoroughfares, gates
  8. What special magic or technology is important for the story – what makes it work?
  9. What dependencies does the culture have? Are there potentially shortages which could cause problems?

There’s more. There’s always more. And that’s half the fun!

One thing to remember is everything is connected. If a city is in the middle of the desert, it has to have a source of water or food. Wells? A river? Magical food delivery/creation? If either isn’t there, then the city will rely upon merchants to haul stuff in. That means it’s vulnerable to a siege (IF the siege force has a supply source too).

If your space empire needs a lot of FTL starships, and they require a special fuel, in a real universe that fuel would have to come from somewhere. Many stories finesse this and assume the source of supply is secure. But it can become an important plot device if you need dilithium crystals, say, and there’s only one planet nearby where you can find a replacement for your shattered drive system.

The good news is you don’t have to provide every detail. Just the ones that matter. It matters more the bigger and more epic your story is. A series of books set in a world of high fantasy probably is going to require a pretty detailed worldbuilding project.

Still, you can get away with a “design-build” concept – develop as you write – if you’re careful.

Constantly Growing, Never Finished



Take my epic fantasy universe, for instance – the World of Orinthia. I started developing the world I’m using all the way back in 1998.  A lot has changed since then, which required careful attention to keep things from going awry. 

When I decided to turn it into a novel series I had to do both, writing and worldbuilding.

I can tell you the worldbuilding is nowhere near done. I haven’t fleshed out everything for books 12 and 15, for instance, because they will dwell upon cultures I haven’t had to tell much about in my first book, Uprooted. But Uprooted did mention a lot of the background for my world, and the worldbuilding for those details had to be at least partially fleshed out before I could write sensibly about them.

I am presently devoting many hours to building my world out further before writing books 2 or 3 or 4. Why? Because without a good framework to draw from you run the risk of “continuity errors.” If I mention the Zoolies in book one, and tell something specific about them, I cannot easily go back in book 3 or 4 and contradict that point.

So the more you write, the more you lock yourself in. That’s okay to a point, but a pilot would call that “flying by the seat of your pants.” It’s risky, because you may accidentally paint yourself into a corner, or even introduce a major contradiction that will make you have to change your whole plot arc from what you intended.

The safe practice is to build what you need, and then build a little further. Keep building as you keep writing so that you, the author, are always more sure of your world and the material you have to work with than your reader ever needs to be.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Big Broad World, and the Isolate

I read three blog posts this morning that got me thinking.

Two were from Christopher Rice (one and two) about when gaming campaigns (RPGs) develop to the point they're a fantasy world unto themselves, not just hack & slash adventures.

The other, by Peter Dell'Orto (here) was a response to Chris' idea, and about how to prevent your campaigns from developing.

Together, they were a fascinating look into the differences within fantasy gaming.

At first I thought, "Who wouldn't want to allow their fantasy world to expand into its own world?"

Then with a shock I realized I have two fantasy fiction series lined up, and between them I cover both philosophies.


The Orinthia Series

A couple weeks ago I described to a good friend and fan how I see the Orinthia series developing. I forsee it as kind of like a pinwheel.

I'm writing about the complex ultra-realistic (for fantasy) world called Orinthia. I am using miniseries of trilogies or individual volumes to connect together and interrelate with the others to form a coherent whole.

There's a tall stalk in two shades. I expect to write 3 to 5 novels describing the First Age of ancient history. A few weeks ago, while building out the deep background for all these stories, I outlined and partially wrote the first 3 of these novels.

And I'll write another 6 to 8 novels about the turmoil that ended the Second Age, when powerful mages ruled the world and then got overthrown. Some of these novels are outlined and partly written already, also.

Then there's the pinwheel.

The culmination of my fantasy epic will be in the Third Age, when many factions vie for power and it's not entirely clear who might come out on top.

Here, several miniseries will follow the lives of sets of characters and, like the spokes of a pinwheel, will all merge at the center into a convergent storyline.

Sound like a big project?

It is! I actually began building this world in the summer of 1998 (some of you might not even have been born yet!). I ran it as a homebrew RPG system for some friends, but didn't get far. I resurrected it when I wanted to start writing fantasy novels.

I return to old projects frequently, and I have a good head of steam built up for this one, so I'm sure this one will turn out well.


Uprooted & Brothers of Orinthia

I've already published the first novel set on Orinthia - Uprooted, available from Amazon.com in Kindle or paperback forms.

This first book introduces two young boys - teenage brothers - who stumble upon a murder that involves them in a plot of interfactional intrigue. The murderers want to kill them, but they're not the only ones, and they're given a necessary lesson in the history of Orinthia, and its geopolitics and philosophies, religious or otherwise.

The Brothers of Orinthia series only provides hints and glimpses at the world around the boys. But you can quickly tell that there's a well-developed backstory behind everything.

And I can tell you I'm still working to flesh out more. I feel like I need to have it mostly developed so that I can do as I did in my first book - include more hints and partial solutions to questions, more tidbits of mysteries to be resolved later.

To see the rest, there will be more books, more series, some from the same time period, and others from different periods. I dare to believe that it might someday be as involved as the Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time series.


The Adventures of Nighland Key

But back to Peter's thought. Why would someone want their story to NOT develop??

I went through a phase, after beginning to write the Orinthia series, where I yearned for simpler things. Fantasy environments that were fun and involving, but didn't require a lot of thought. Just enjoy.

I started reading Dungeons & Dragons novels, other related "gaming" fiction, started playing Icewind Dale for hours at a time. Eventually, finding not enough fiction easily available, I decided it would be fun to write a simpler RPG style series of books.

Thus was born Nighland Key and his band of adventurers!

I've begun writing this series, and planning, and developing the characters. It's fun, but it's not done. More Orinthia ahead before these will be available. But they're enjoyable to write, and I would presume they could be written more quickly, so you might see them in the not too distant future.

So, I realized, I'd mirrored in my own writing the dichotomy between these seemingly irreconcilable points of view on worldbuilding. Sometimes you just want something simpler to read, or play, or write.

Thanks for reading! Now I'm returning to writing the Orinthia series.

As always, I'll encourage you to please pick up Uprooted and leave a review on Amazon. Reviews provide life for authors like myself, and will generate more sales.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Civil Air Patrol Stories Coming!

I'm proud of many things I've done in life but probably the most significant and impactful experiences when I was young revolved around my 8 years in the Civil Air Patrol.

When asked I used to tell people Civil Air Patrol (aka CAP) was sort of like Air Force Scouts (like the Boy or Girl Scouts), though that was a gross oversimplification.

CAP is for young people 13 and up (or graduation from 6th Grade if below age 13), but also for adults. Though not a military service (it's a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force) during World War II and since CAP patrolled the coasts and even dropped bombs on German submarines.

My specialty, once I'd tried out a number of the many options open to cadets (the young folks - 13 to 18 or up to 21 if desired), was emergency services. In practical terms that means search & rescue (SAR) or SAR support.

That's what Civil Air Patrol Stories is about.


The first story I'm going to publish is merely an introduction, and it's short (not novel length - more of a novelette), but it will give readers a feel for what's ahead for the series.

It's about a search & rescue mission - roughly based on an actual mission - set in 1988 when the main characters are in high school. You get an idea of the kind of drama and excitement is to come.

The second story will be novel length and provides an introduction to the squadron, more of the characters at an earlier age, and provides a look at the wide range of activities and roles CAP cadets can participate in. It shows why I had such a blast even at age 13.

To keep tabs on these upcoming stories and to learn more about when they'll be available (soon! - in paperback and Kindle formats) please LIKE me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter .

Thanks! Now back to writing...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: The Reader of Acheron, by Walter Rhein

In the process of creating my newly released novel, Uprooted, I've been reading fantasy fiction by alot of other authors, so I'll occasionally highlight some of these novels in reviews.


I saw a bumper sticker today. It read, “I think, therefore I am dangerous.”

Walter Rhein’s The Reader of Acheron is a compelling tale about “dangerous” men in a culture where reading and thinking among the lower classes is actively discouraged by the ruling class.

Part way through you realize this isn’t a typical fantasy setting. The old civilization has fallen, to be replaced by a tyrannical class of elites who rule over a frightened population of illiterates and drug-addled slaves. It’s a society whose stability rests upon a foundation of ignorance. Those who won’t remain in the dark become threats.

And yet, it’s not that simple – a secret twist lurks in the background.

There are four or five major characters. Each is tantalizingly fleshed out. Two main heroes – one a slave, one a soldier – each suffer under their own burdens of servitude, and each fights back by seeking both freedom and awareness.

I most enjoyed the main character named Quillion. He’s a clever, crafty, “chaotic good” figure whose methods are unorthodox and inscrutable (he reminds me of Mel Gibson’s character in the “Lethal Weapon” movies). I laughed when I got to the line, “This wasn’t the first time in his life of questionable acts that he wondered if he’d made a fatal error.” That’s the essence of what makes Quillion an entertaining, catalytic element who keeps the reader flipping pages to find out how he’s going to get out of his latest fix.

I could not identify so well with Kikkan, the slave. This is partly because his motivation and drives are so relatively simple. Yet he also exhibits a high degree of sophistication in his thinking and actions at other times. By the end of the book it feels natural, but the dissonance was a bit jarring early on.

This is a professionally done work that compares favorably with books you’d find on the shelves of your local bookstore. I had remarkably few editing niggles, and they didn’t detract from the story at all.

Rhein’s craft draws you in. His writing is atmospheric, portentous, descriptive, ironic, emotive. He gives clever attention to human nature and the nature of authoritarian government, and even bureaucracy. It’s a thoughtful book with a lot to say about philosophy and politics.

And by the end you know the adventure has only begun, which perfectly builds the reader’s anticipation for the next volume in the series.

To purchase The Reader of Acheron, visit Amazon.com.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Uprooted Has Been Published!

In case you hadn’t noticed my giddy Facebook postings, I wanted to let everybody know that I’ve finally published my very first novel!

It’s called Uprooted: Brothers of Orinthia, Book 1. It’s available on Amazon in both Kindle format, as well as in print-on-demand paperback format for those who prefer to be able to hold a book in their hands (that’s me, though I’m getting used to Kindle).

So far, I have confirmed readers in the US, the UK, Germany, India and Australia! This may be old hat for experienced authors, but for a first-time novelist it’s quite a thrill to watch.

No, so far sales are not going “gangbusters” – I’m not planning my retirement yet. It’s hard to break into the market without a strong surge of initial sales, plus some positive reviews. I’ll get into how you can help me with that in a minute! :)

Uprooted (http://www.amazon.com/Uprooted-Brothers-Orinthia-Edwin-Hanks-ebook/dp/B00IJKFIG4) - is book one of what’s planned as an epic series. Here’s what the “dust jacket” (the Amazon description, anyway) says:
Two brothers stumble upon the macabre scene of an old murder. Who was this man? Why was he killed? They find answers to the mystery soon enough, and it rips them away from their comfortable rural home. They must run for their lives, pursued by malicious forces, thrown into a world of competing magical and conventional powers, uprooted from everything they’ve known and held familiar.

This is author Edwin Hanks’ first full novel, and the first of two series – the Brothers Subseries, fantasy thrillers about two young boys coming of age, and the Orinthia Series which draws them and dozens of others into a larger storyline of magic, romance, faith, politics and intrigue.

It’s a series about regular people in irregular circumstances. Ordinary heroes who aren't of noble blood. Highborn heroes who are real people underneath. Opponents vying against one another for victory, each believing their cause is just.

This epic series is faithful to the traditions of high fantasy while upending many of the clichés of the genre.
I still mean to publish a blog post about some of my “pet peeves” in fantasy writing, which I’m trying to avoid. Clichés, overdone motifs, etc. Let’s just say Uprooted is my answer to a lot of those clichés – like the “golden boys” who don’t know they’re the prophesied saviors of mankind, or the impending end of the world, or even the hand-wringing evil guy in the “black hat.”

For those who are curious, here’s more about the book, and the series that shall follow:

• It’s part of a genre called “epic fantasy” or sometimes “high fantasy” – ambitious stuff like The Lord of the Rings, or The Wheel of Time.
• It’s a “coming of age” story primarily about two brothers, but that doesn’t mean it’s merely a “young adult” novel – it’s meant for general adult fantasy readers.
• Most of my characters have roles to play in events that are much larger than they are – these are regular people caught in irregular situations.

There are no “golden boys” here. These boys are a lot more like me and you at their age. Maybe a little (a lot?) more mature, but that was normal in older ages. Given a challenge, they will still rise to it, using the talents at their disposal. But they’re still just regular guys. And some regular girls to go along with them!

I’m already writing the sequel, and a number of the other stories that will go along with the broader series. My intent is to fully flesh out the world with a variety of stories from different (often opposed) points of view. Many of these will be linked with each other and will end up funneling into the climactic final “subseries.”

And if you don't live in the USA, your country-specific Amazon store should have the book too (the Kindle, at least). Just take the URL given above and replace the ".com" with your "dot-whatever" (.co.uk, etc.) and you'll find it. Or you could just type "Uprooted Hanks" into the search.

Just a reminder, dear readers and fans, of two things:

1) if you wouldn’t mind spending a couple (or a few, if you want the paperback) dollars to help me out, every sale helps build me toward those coveted “Best Seller” lists on Amazon. Just being there increases visibility and helps sales – your purchase of either the Kindle version or the paperback edition will really help me out.

2) Another thing that would really help me is positive reviews! If you can take a few moments to say a few words, or even to just give me a star rating, that’s going to go miles and miles toward helping me find new readers. Honest reviews are great! Honest positive reviews are ten-times better!

Once more – thank you for all you’ve done to support and encourage me!

Author Edwin Hanks

p.s. One more thing: Here’s a sneak peek at the regional map I’m using for the world of Orinthia. I’m planning a full blog on this soon, but this may serve as a teaser.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Yeast Makes the Story Rise

Why do I keep posting about the similarities between fiction writing and cooking?  I really think there's alot to be said for the analogies.  The more I write, the more parallels I see.

My wife will tell you (she tells me, anyway) I'm a pretty good cook.  She's amazed that I can season without measuring, and can take 3 regular recipes and combine them into one allergy-free dish that tastes good.

She'll also tell you I'm very impatient in the kitchen.  Which makes breadmaking a chancy, frustrating process for me.  You just can't rush good bread!

I put the dough together - regular mixing stuff, done that - then add these little pellet-grains of activated yeast.

And then I wait...

For about 3 minutes.  Or maybe 5.  And then I start to get this yawning fear that something isn't right - that maybe I did something wrong.

Ten minutes in, I'm trying to figure out what I might do to correct my presumed mistake.  Soon, I might be acting on that presumption, and probably short-circuiting the whole rising process!

I'm lucky I don't act that way as a writer.  Maybe you've noticed? :)

Yes, it's true.  I've been telling people my first fantasy story - Uprooted - is "almost" done for about four months now.

In truth, the story has been "almost done" for four months.  It's just I was never satisfied with the result.  I kept thinking I'd be disappointed with myself if I published it in that shape.  I keep wanting it to be more compelling.  More interesting.  More tense.  I want the characters to be more meaningful to the reader.  I want the story to be more suggestive of a wider world and more stories ahead.

So I've been working on it.  Alot.

Gradually it's been taking shape.  It's been "rising."  It's been taking on a shape entirely unlike what I imagined I was writing, when I first set out.

Not long ago, I was planning to publish a story that was 17,000 words long.  Recently I sent out a story that's 33,000 words long to a set of trusted beta-readers.  And while they're working on reading and providing critiques, I'm changing it yet again (in relatively small, but meaningful, ways).  It's growing, and filling the "pan."

I've grown wary and tired of using the phrase, "It's almost ready to publish."  So I won't say it again.  I may never use that phrase in the future!

But the fact that the "rising" has slowed, and the fact that my beta-readers are reading and sending back final comments, should give you an idea that this first story set in the world of Orinthia will be ready relatively soon.

I keep comfort in the idea that alot of the depth and background I've developed for this introductory story will be very helpful for me as I expand the series and add more novels.  Hopefully, those will be easier and quicker to write! 

Or maybe I'll just realize that the story tastes better when it's allowed to take its own sweet
time.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sample: First Scene of "Uprooted" (my upcoming fantasy novella)

Sorry I haven't been posting much, here.  One of my last posts was at the end of July, which was partially entitled "Close to Publishing..." (somewhat amusing in retrospect).

I've been adding brief updates on a more frequent basis on my Edwin Hanks, Author Facebook page, which is now up to 199 likes/subscribers (want to be #200?).

The long and short of those various updates is that, after more or less completing the story, I've been adding layer upon layer of depth, receiving comments from a number of deeply-valued beta-readers, and making changes according to what they or I feel isn't working quite right.  It's a refining process I intend to discuss shortly in a blog post about croissants.

Previously, I've shared with you samples of my historical fiction writing.  I've meant to supply some writing from other genres, but I haven't found a good sample.  Now, it's time.

What I have for you today is a sample from the upcoming novella, "Uprooted."  It hasn't changed much, at all, in the last two months, and I surprised myself yesterday by making some minor improvements, but I don't anticipate I'll change it again except in response to comments which you can leave here.

As a special bonus, you'll get to see one of the illustrations from the book!  Thanks to Nicole Charpentier for doing some of the interior illustrations.

Chapter 1

The odor of damp earth and warm forest penetrated Caran’s nostrils.  He lay on his side, rocks and twigs uncomfortably prickling through his tunic. 

A youth in his mid-teens, dressed in simple woolen earthtones, his tousled brown hair eclipsed his searching green eyes ever so slightly.  He peered out from a concealing copse of trees and brush, hoping to catch sight of his prey. 

Caran glimpsed nothing of interest.  Just the gray-whiteness of a thousand aspen trees.  The clustered red of the tappery bushes.  No movement but the flutter of small green leaves.  No sound but the call of a hawk circling high overhead, its piercing cry sharp like its talons. 

A wise hunter is patient.  Still.  Silent.  Eyes scanning. 

The mountains of the Burgundy Range loomed large against the distant horizon – a startling contrast of brilliant green vegetation and bright red rock, with a hint of snow dusting the very tops.

Nearer, to front and left of the woods where Caran concealed himself, ran a crescent of bluffs overlooking an oxbow of the Jerat River, whose smoothly flowing waters bit softly into their base.

A wisp of breeze ruffled Caran’s hair.  A trio of birds flashed past, winging through the branches in chase.

He continued to watch.  His mind drifted to thoughts of Kiya, the tall, beautiful, brunette a year his senior who occupied his thoughts often.  He imagined he might now be hunting for food for her table.  Their table – the one he hoped they would share someday. 

Occasionally he convinced himself Kiya shared his interest.  Sometimes it seemed...  Some times, that was, when she wasn’t acting as if he was utterly beneath her notice.  He tamped down a surge of irritation.  Why would she…

There!  A small child in drab brown clothing stirred from a thicket.  The boy’s gaze darted furtively.  Excitedly.  He began to move.  Wrestling with entangling branches, he blundered through his first steps, making enough rustling, crackling noises to rouse a bear from slumber. 

Caran shook his head with a wry smirk.  Slowly, he shifted, leaves crackling quietly under his form.  He raised his bow to match his gaze.  Pulling the bowstring back, he took careful aim.  “Pfft….  Thut!” he shouted, sound effects pitched to carry.

The boy stopped abruptly.  His eyes goggled, and he stared in stunned silence at Caran’s location for a full two heartbeats.  Then he dropped to the ground.

“You missed me!” he yelled back.
 
Grumbling, Caran called back, “I had a perfect shot!  There’s no chance I missed you.  You’re a corpse!”

“I was running!”  After a second’s thought, the argumentative youngster added, “And I ducked!”

That simply evoked a mocking laugh.  “Yeah… After your head got split open!”

Unexpectedly, the youth stood up again.  His body and throwing arm arched back and flung forward to propel some object.  It landed a full twenty paces from Caran’s location.  But the range wasn’t bad, he noted.

“Kawhumpf!” the boy shouted.  “A naptha bottle!  You’re dead!” 

As Caran considered whether to dignify that with a response, he heard a shout of alarm from across the clearing.  Real alarm.  Or so it seemed from the tone.

“Tev?!” he called back.  “You okay?”  A beat or two of silence… 

Caran leapt to his feet and dashed intently toward where he had last seen his little brother.  As he ran, he reached back and pulled a real arrow from his quiver, notching it for ready use.

He hadn’t crossed half the clearing before the younger child squeaked, “Caran!  Come quick.  You won’t believe this!”